School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Brian, on a mission at St. Labre Mission!

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Brian S. Jones has been the Food Service Director at St. Labre Indian School (a private Catholic School) in Montana for five years. The 100% CEP district enrolls 600 students from the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations in three buildings, each with its own kitchen. Pre-COVID the program was preparing breakfast and lunch meals for all students. Brian and his 26 staff members have a well-deserved reputation for excellence: St. Labre meals are made from scratch, everything from the baking of all breads and rolls to cutting and slicing fruits and vegetables for salad bars and lines. Brian also been known as the “bison man” in SNA circles because the school raises, processes and serves their own bison meat.

When schools closed in March and students were scattered throughout a sparsely inhabited area without reliable transportation, Brian knew he had to do something different to keep feeding his customers. He had always been thinking about packaging systems in the back of his mind and knew this was the time to purchase them. The administration agreed to buy three packaging machines, one for each kitchen. Later a donor read about their success with packaged meals and donated funds for a fourth machine to increase capacity. The program made, packaged and delivered over 900 meals per day – the same high quality, house-made meals that they served before the pandemic, like salads and parfaits. The schools are gradually returning to in-person learning with meals in the classroom and some older students living full-time in the dormitory.  

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

To achieve Brian’s vision of a quality end-product, the entire staff had to be re-trained. Basically school kitchens with tray lines had to be turned into production kitchens with assembly lines. Cooks needed training on adapted recipes and the packaging crew needed to learn the ins-and-outs of packaging machines. Due to supply chain and storage issues (challenges in the best of times), the district also had to go to shelf stable milk.

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Brian doesn’t hesitate for a moment in giving credit where credit is due: He is incredibly proud of his staff. He recognizes that much of their work satisfaction comes from daily interactions with students around nourishing food. They were able to take that energy and passion for mostly personal relationships and turn it into the more routine jobs of packing and delivery food. Because transportation routes had be reconfigured and buses could not go unto certain areas, food services employees also became food van drivers – a sometimes treacherous situation due to weather and the potential for COVID exposure.

Employees have embraced production meals

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Sadly the reservations served by St. Labre School have been hard hit by the pandemic with high rates of infection and deaths. It is the tradition of the tribes to serve large funeral feasts for extended families and friends, often at events for up to 150 people. The multiple packaging machines have been getting lots of use for catering these events (at cost) – sometimes up to six in one week.

Production Meals in St. Labre Indian School